House Made of Dawn N. Scott Momaday
(Full name Navarre Scott Momaday; also rendered as Navarro and Novarro) American novelist, poet, autobiographer, nonfiction writer, editor, and artist.
The following entry presents criticism on Momaday's novel House Made of Dawn (1968). For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 19, and 85.
Of Kiowa descent, Momaday is widely recognized as one of the most successful contemporary Native American literary figures. Considered a major influence by numerous Native writers, he has garnered critical acclaim for his focus on Kiowa traditions, customs, and beliefs, and the role of Amerindians in contemporary society. Although highly regarded for House Made of Dawn (1968), Momaday considers himself primarily a poet. All of his writings, however, are greatly influenced by the oral tradition and typically concern the nature and origins of Native American myths. House Made of Dawn received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969. It was the first novel written by an American Indian author to be so recognized, and its publication along with the award initiated what has come to be called a Native American Renaissance of literature.
Plot and Major Characters
The action of House Made of Dawn takes place between July 20, 1945, and February 28, 1952. The narration comprises an undated prologue and four dated portions set in the Jemez pueblo of Walatowa, New Mexico (the prologue and sections one and four take place here) and the Los Angeles area (sections two and three). After the brief prologue which describes a young man running, the story proper opens on July 20, 1945, when a young man named Abel, an orphan raised by his traditionalist grandfather, Francisco, returns to Walatowa after serving in the second world war. Alienated and disorganized by war experiences (and also, it is suggested, by the early loss of his mother and brother and previous bouts of malaise), Abel is unable to make a meaningful reintegration into the life of the village. He takes a temporary job cutting wood for Angela St. John, a troubled, sensuous visitor to the area, and has an affair with her. He participates in a village festival and is singled out by a strange, ominous-appearing albino man. Meanwhile, the omniscient narration follows a parallel line with the village priest, Father Olguin, as he studies the diary of his predecessor, Fray Nicolas. On August 1, Abel stabs the albino to death in a cornfield. This section of the story ends the next day with Abel's grandfather Francisco, again alone, hoeing his fields.
The two parts of the second section are dated January 27 and 28, 1952. This section takes place in Los Angeles and centers on the character of Tosamah, a Kiowa storefront preacher and believer in the divine properties of peyote, a hallucinogenic drug. The January 27 section contains the first of two sermons by Tosamah, a long discourse on a verse from the Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word." Tosamah maintains that language has been debased by white people and its power lost or corrupted. At the time that Tosamah is giving this sermon, Abel appears to be lying miles away, barely conscious after having suffered a terrible beating that has disabled his hands. The omniscient narrator moves back and forth in time presenting fragments of Abel's past: filling out forms in prison or afterwards; meetings with an earnest social worker, Milly, with whom he has an affair; life in prison; and testimony at his trial by Father Olguin and by a friend of his from the army. This section also contains a depiction of a peyote ceremony and introduces Ben Benally, who will play a significant part in Abel's eventual apparent rehabilitation. The January 28 section is composed almost entirely of Tosamah's second sermon, a passage in which Momaday meditates on his Kiowa grandmother's life and the history and passing of the magnificent Kiowa culture. (This piece was previously published as an essay in Ramparts magazine and was later...
(The entire section is 74,250 words.)